The acting bug

Impressive ensemble makes good work of oderbergh’s disaster thriller

Patient Zero.

Patient Zero.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Contagion is an engaging throwback to the ensemble cast-driven disaster films of the ’70s that avoids the crass spectacle of the genre. I’ve always preferred the ensemble approach to film narrative, actually. Instead of having some famous face rent his or her name to sell Friday-night fare, the ensemble movie, at its best, implicitly challenges the whole cast to earn their close-ups. Sadly, that style took a serious hit with Robert Altman’s demise, but fortunately Steven Soderbergh is around to again deliver a tightly wound group of characters.

With a cough, we meet up with Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a Hong Kong hotel room, exhausted after a full night (well, not exhausted it turns out). Soderbergh calls this “Day 2” (a setup for the film’s drolly existential coda), as she is about to spread the seeds of death on her flight back to Chicago—which quickly leads to us seeing a side of Paltrow we’ve never seen before.

So, one sneeze leads to another and soon the whole damn world is stocking up on Theraflu. Oh, and dying. In a nod to the zombie genre that it shares some gestalt with, sufferers stagger about as the literal living dead as they infect those around them with touch instead of bite. It’s a daisy chain of death as various health workers race to find a vaccine against a ticking clock. The time passes quickly with a propulsive Cliff Martinez score that throbs like bad blood, infusing the pace with a feverish quality. The urgency is punctuated occasionally by some of the cast dropping with the flies.

It is an exceptional cast, featuring the likes of Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould, Jude Law (settling comfortably into villainous roles) and Laurence Fishburne, among a lot of others. They’re not shiny, iconic faces. They’re the actors who turn in solid performances consistently, and they get to work their chops here. A-lister Matt Damon stands out as a grieving husband and father, in a role that’d be played by Mark Wahlberg in a lesser movie.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the happy-face button on the lapel of an Armani suit. Aside from Law’s venal blogger, pretty much everyone else is dedicated and good at their jobs, which sort of diffuses the urgency of the narrative. And ultimately leads to the movie ending right where the shit should really be about to hit the fan. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your general feelings about humanity.